SXSW Day Four – Bruce Sterling’s Annual Rant

The last panel of SXSW Interactive was Bruce Sterling’s Rant. (Audio here).

Sterling is a favorite son of Austin, and was clearly basking in the throngs of adoring fans.

He spent most of his time on a few specific subjects.

First, a plea for people to look seriously at Reed Hundt’s organization (Frontline Wireless) which is looking to convert some of the spectrum currently used by broadcast TV and use it to blanket urban America with broadband Internet. (“There are divorcees in Korea with better access than we’ve got – it’s embarassing” – “No one watches broadcast television anymore anyway”)

Second, a discussion of, for lack of a better term, web 2.0. He spent quite a bit of time talking about Yochai Benkler and Henry Jenkins.

He spent a lot of time on Benkler’s Wealth of Networks – while distancing himself from it as the work of east cost academics and intellectuals. (Sterling plays the good ol’ boy a bit too thick for my tastes – there’s an odd, post-modern strain of good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism in his jabs at Yalies and chrome-dome academics – but maybe that’s just because I see myself in them?)

On Jenkins he was considerably less engaged. Where Jenkins sees fan fiction and participatory culture as a democratic impulse and a potentially liberating movement, Sterling sees it as bad writing – a “folk culture – and folk culture’s for hicks.” He responds to Technorati’s tagline, arguing that just because there are over 55 million blogs doesn’t actually mean any of them have to be good, in any real sense.

Sterling’s smart enough to see the power of the information publishing machines that the internet has allowed a huge majority of people to have – information really is free, and that is transforming industries: things which used to be businesses before just aren’t any more – but he can’t get his head around the possibilities of artistic production that might be engendered.

At one point, he talked about mashups, and musical mashups in particular, and argued “in 10 years no one will be listening to mashups.” I think he’s right, in the sense that what we see as mashups today may be gone, but I can’t help but notice he sounds an awful lot like the folks who dismissed hip-hop at the beginning, because it was too different from what they were used to calling music. Or, for that matter, the early record execs who passed on the Beatles because they felt “guitar music is a fad.” I don’t know that the next hip-hop, or the next Beatles, will come out of JamGlue, but I do know all artists working today can’t help but be influenced by the availability of pro-tools, garage-band, and myspace – and that these will fundamentally impact how artists are heard and seen in our lifetimes.

Anyway, his rant is well worth a listen. It’s a healthy, cynical counter to the buoyant optimism of so much web 2.0 talk – the simple fact that more people can create does not make the creations better – this is true of web 2.0, as it was of web 1.0, as it was of desktop publishing, as it was of word processing, as it was of the typewriter, as it was of the printing press . . .